"The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them..." -Andre Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto, 1924
Have you read The Surrealist Manifesto lately? Ever? Please do yourself a favor. I'm having the first genuinely trendspotting-y intuition I've had in a long time and it's telling me we're on the verge of a New Surrealism.
Since the early Nineties, pop culture has worshipped at the altar of Reality. Reality TV, documentaries and true life stories, 24/7 news cycles, the rise of non-fiction and the death of the novel, the popularization of science, modern art that leans into the shock of the real, YouTube (where real people showcase real talents)... even the "real food" movement... All of these phenomena are direct reflections, replicas of the lives we lead and see others lead. In this way they are meant to be affirming and comforting, grounding or inspiring: Hey, I'm not alone... If he can do that, there's no reason I can't, too... Phew, I'm normal.
Perhaps it's no accident that this grounding in reality coincided with the slightly scary, though really exciting birth of the virtual world. The more tools we uncovered to portray and augment reality, the stronger our tie became to it. But, we're due for a change. The natural order of things dictates that the pendulum that swings too far in one direction, is bound to swing back.In 1924, the ballet impresario and toast of Paris, Diaghilev, premiered the Surrealist-inspired show, Le Train Bleu. Later he wrote:
"The first point about Le Train Bleu is that there is no blue train in it. This being the age of speed, it has already reached its destination and disembarked its passengers. These are to be seen on a beach which does not exist, in front of a casino which exists still less. Overhead passes an airplane which you do not see. And the plot represents nothing. Yet when it was presented for the first time in Paris, everybody was unaccountably seized with the desire to take the Blue Train to Deauville and perform refreshing exercises." (From Arianna Huffington's Picasso.)
Reading this, I was struck first and foremost by the art of illusion and the power of suggestion at work; two subtle sciences all but lost in our current culture of gross exposition. Once the secret weapon of artists and even advertisers (Do you see? It says 'sex' right there in the ice cube!), they've been replaced with desperate pleas to purchase. In visual entertainment, sophisticated special effects and 3D leave less and less to the imagination. While tell-all memoirs lay bare the most intimate details of even the most private experiences. Even teen literature, which once communed so beautifully with young readers by merely hinting at the titillating and awkward, denies the participation of the senses in storytelling by spelling it all out.
From my vantage point as a commercial communications specialist, I feel part of the cause is that we're all so desperate to be heard in this cacophonous culture. Whether you are making a movie or selling jeans, you have to "cut through the clutter" in order to "move the needle." This imperative leads people to avoid any kind of communication that is indirect, abstruse, or abstract. It's just too risky.
Another ingredient in the mix is the burgeoning self-actualization movement, which is dominated by the imperative for clarity of mind, body, and intention. We cleanse and meditate, sweat and pray, in order to find the still point. This is-of course-a wonderful path through a chaotic world. I've walked it for many years, myself. But, there is a tendency here, too, towards the extreme. Self-righteous earnestness can be just as paralyzing to the imaginative faculties as remorseless exposition.
We're like athletes in training for a mental marathon. The prize is for speed in uptake and the goal is to cross the finish line towards understanding before anyone else. Anything that requires processing by more than one of my senses, calls on symbols and rhythms that lie anywhere deeper than the surface of my present state, or asks me to color outside the lines feels like work. The abstract and nonsensical are out of bounds at the moment.
And so we trudge along and continue to participate in the dominant cultural motif because nothing genuinely new has captured our attention... yet. Here and there, a spark of light glimmers or erupts, showing us what a surreal future might hold (an independent film, Lady Gaga...). But for the most part, we blaze along through the cultural wasteland kicking up an impenetrable cloud of dust in the form of information and various interpretations of reality. The more we get, the more confused we become because we're at an inflection point, a breaking point. It's no longer time to get real, it's time to get surreal.
The crowning glory, the high prize of surrealism, was the release of the imagination from bondage. It is this faculty alone that can save us because imagination forces the use not just of the head, but the whole being. Stimulate the imagination and you set the soul in motion. You see not merely with the eyes, but with the senses. You understand not just through the head, but through the body.
The beauty of Diaghilev's achievement and the gift of Surrealism is its power to suggest alternate realities, realities that defy explanation, that are intensely personal and communal at the same time, realities that are as porous and fluid as our reality actually is. By dismissing the objective experience of reality, the logical one, Surrealism sends man running in the direction of the one source of Truth that will never fail him: the Self.